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August 10, 2010

Op-Ed: John Shableski on Kids, Graphic Novels and Publishing

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How do you save the publishing industry? Ask a kid. While things are in a state of flux as the publishing houses scramble to figure out how to deal with ebooks (which definitely are here to stay), they are still only a small part of our world and not the biggest challenge facing the industry. What the publishers should be asking is this: Where is the next reader coming from and how do we get them to enjoy reading?

The answer: Look to elementary schools. This is where we create readers for life—or lose them. Many would argue that we’ve already lost kids to video games and the Internet, but both statements couldn’t be further from the truth. Today’s kids will read real books—and love them—if you publish good ones and market them well. Remember how they lined up to read seven books about a guy named Harry a few years ago?
 
The heart of the challenge for teachers, librarians, and publishers lies with the fact that not enough books to drive this enthusiasm are being created to get more kids to fall in love with reading. Why is this? It’s due in large part to our own biases. As parents, teachers, librarians, retailers, or professionals, we have this idea that kids are supposed to read what we think are “good” books versus allowing them to read what they want, thus allowing them to fall in love with reading.
 
The reality is many of these kids who may be declared “challenged” or “reluctant readers” just need a different access point to literacy to encourage this enthusiasm. Graphic novels often are the perfect combination of images and text which unlocks the door for them. Facial expressions paired with the elements of dialogue, actions and settings allow the reader a vastly greater opportunity to grasp the intent of the story. The images within the panels allow a proper context to be established which is such a critical tool for the reader who has yet to develop the ability to imagine those settings. Context allows comfort which then fosters a joy…of reading.
 
You might be surprised at how many mainstream authors fell in love with reading books because of comics. I see them at comics conferences where they recall stories of their favorite comic characters with warmth, passion and enthusiasm. Just last year, the author Junot Diaz told an auditorium full of educators and librarians at the National Council of Teachers of English Conference (NCTE) that he feels kids should only be allowed to read comics in school until they were in 7th grade so we would engage them. For a man who has won the Pulitzer Prize, happens to teach at MIT, and grew up reading comics, that should give you a sense of the value that graphic novels bring to reading.
 
Why are we working so hard to sell this format to adults when the real money is where the kids are? There are a lot of amazing graphic novels getting published in many genres and for many different audiences but we all are working too hard to convince adults that they should be reading them. While there will always be a market for adult stories in the graphic novel format, it’s currently a limited one. The biggest returns will come from the kids, tweens and teen market. Marketers have found success here before—think Happy Meals and Disney. It is the gateway to a billion dollar market opportunity if you allow them to discover the joy of reading and you have them for life.
 
It’s surprising how many comics publishers and traditional houses seem to have forgotten how old they were when they first fell in love with reading and comics. For the most part, as they are all working so hard to publish the next great comics for the adult market (and their friends), they have forgotten about the kids. If you want more people to read your books, you have to hook them while their young. There are some brilliant graphic novel stories out there that kids just can’t get enough of: Scott Pilgrim, Amelia Rules, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Smile: A Dental Drama. These are all great stories that the next generation reader absolutely loves and has embraced as their own.
 
Also, it’s rather surprising how little the major houses know about the graphic novels that they ARE publishing. Walk any one of the trade show floors and you will easily spot the major publishers who know what they are doing. The rest are lacking in their knowledge, at best. Maybe the problem is they keep looking for the next Harry Potter and with the crazed response (= revenue) that Diary of a Wimpy Kid generated. In doing so they are missing some of the brilliant books that they already have in their inventory, but have not sold in well enough internally to sales and marketing—and the rest of the staff—to make them “work” for the house and beyond that in the marketplace. Seriously, just about every one of the publishers have some brilliant graphic novels, the sales and marketing teams just can’t seem to see what they have at their finger tips.
 
There is also some burden to be shared by the retailers. The question they must ask themselves is this: Do I sell what people are looking for or do I sell just what I think they should read? If librarians only carried the books they want people to read, there would be a much smaller group of folks walking through the doors. There are some great booksellers who have it figured out: Politics and Prose in Washington DC, Skylight Books in Los Angeles, Greenlight Books in Brooklyn, and Malaprops in Asheville, North Carolina are amongst a growing list retailers who have figured out that graphic novels are bringing a new audience into their stores.

So, if you really want to save the publishing industry, develop (print) more great graphic novels for kids. Then allow them the opportunity to discover a love of reading. I think the results from there will be rather interesting.

---John Shableski

John Shableski is a sales manager for Diamond Book Distributors, the global leader in the distribution of comics, graphic novels and related merchandise.  His area of expertise is in the development of the library, education and independent retail markets.  John has been a guest speaker and symposium developer for events such as Book Expo America, The American Library Association, Book Expo Canada,  New York Comic Con, Miami Book Fair International and Fordham University. In 2009 he joined the Book Expo America Advisory Committee and also served as a judge for the Eisner Awards at Comic-Con International in San Diego, California.